DUI case filings up in Municipal Court; new .05 law not a big factor
Nov 05, 2019 04:21PM
By Carl Fauver
Taylorsville Municipal Court adjudicates infractions and lower-class misdemeanors inside city hall. (Google)
By Carl Fauver | [email protected]
As Taylorsville Municipal Justice Court Judge Michael W. Kwan finishes up serving a six-month suspension from the bench, without pay, city officials say the court has continued to function effectively under interim Judge Ron Wolthius, along with city prosecutor Casey Taylor and court-appointed public defender Doug Stowell.
“Our court is running very smoothly,” Mayor Kristie Overson said. “It has been seamless.”
“Judge Wolthius is actually handling more cases, more quickly [than Kwan did],” City Attorney Tracy Cowdell said. “I am grateful to [Wolthius] for filling in under difficult circumstances and with very little notice. He has done a tremendous job.”
Kwan was suspended last May — in a decision approved by the Utah Supreme Court — for making derogatory comments in court about President Donald Trump. The politically charged news was picked up nationally in many publications.
“When it comes to humor, politicians are often the butt of jokes; this can be a problem, however, if the jokes are delivered by a judge,” is how The New York Times opened its story about the incident.
At a recent Taylorsville City Council meeting, normally opposing attorneys Taylor and Stowell appeared together to update the council on the justice court. Then two weeks later, as he approached the end of his six-month stint as the fill-in, Wolthius did likewise.
“You have been very gracious and accommodating as I have filled in,” Wolthius told council members. “We are moving people through Justice Court as fast as any municipality in the valley. I think you have an excellent Justice Court staff. It has been my pleasure to serve.”
In their appearance before the city council two weeks earlier, Taylor and Stowell focused more on updating Justice Court case filing trends.
Taylor reported that driving under the influence case filings took a dramatic jump in fiscal year 2019. However, he does not believe the state’s recent lowering of the legal blood alcohol level to .05 — the lowest in the nation — is a significant factor in that jump.
“Of the 127 DUI filings we had (July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019), maybe three or four are for suspects whose blood alcohol level was between .05 and .08 (the previous legal limit),” Taylor said. “I don’t think the new law has really changed things much. We are still investigating cases the exact same way. I don’t think it has had as much of an impact as people were worried it would.”
Taylor is a prosecutor in the firm of Cowdell & Woolley, P.C. (7500 South State Street). That firm has held the Taylorsville city attorney contract for about 10 years.
For a bit longer, since 2006, the firm of Stowell, Crayk and Bown has held the city’s public defender contract. A Professional Limited Liability Company, Stowell, Crayk and Bown (2225 South State Street) represents low-income defendants in several cities and has a second office in Vernal.
“Our firm serves as public defenders in 13 Utah cities, primarily in Salt Lake County, but with a couple in Utah County and one in Vernal,” Stowell said. “We handle about 400 legal cases in the Taylorsville Justice Court each quarter, representing about 200 different clients. I would guess about 20% of all defendants facing charges in Taylorsville are (financially) eligible for court-appointed defense.”
Defendant eligibility for taxpayer-funded representation is based on federal guidelines.
“The Indigent Defense Act (2016 Utah Code) requires defendants to earn no more than 150% of the United States poverty level to be eligible for court-appointed council,” Taylorsville Justice Court Clerk Jeff Gallegos reported. “According to our current table, a single person must have a salary no higher than roughly $18,000 per year to be eligible. For a family of six, the total household income must not be over about $51,000 for a defendant to be assigned a court-appointed attorney.”
The 127 DUI case filings for fiscal year 2019 marks a 20% increase over the 105 filings in FY 2018. During his presentation to the council, Taylor suggested a couple of possible reasons for the marked increase.
“It seems Unified Police has put an increased focus on drunk driving arrests in Taylorsville,” he said. “I know they conducted at least two DUI checkpoints during the year. I have prosecuted in other states and can tell you that different law enforcement agencies place different emphasis on DUIs. Here in Taylorsville, it seems to be a higher priority.”
Both Taylor and Stowell agree that drunk driving convictions routinely cost defendants thousands of dollars.
“DUIs are a Class B misdemeanor in Utah, unless there are multiple offense or other circumstances (such as a car accident and/or injuries),” Stowell said. “But people who are not eligible for public defenders will pay $3,000 to $5,000 for defense in my office. And $10,000 fees are not uncommon.”
Additionally, DUI fines and fees typically cost well over $1,000, and court-ordered substance abuse treatment can add thousands more to the tab.
In addition to DUI cases, other more serious crimes adjudicated in Justice Court include domestic abuse and retail theft cases, when the value of what has been stolen does not exceed $500. All other crimes — Class A misdemeanors and all felonies — are referred to District Court.
After presenting their information to the Taylorsville City Council, the body’s vice chair offered Stowell and Taylor praise.
“I observed our Justice Court last summer, and I can tell you it moves quickly, but with compassion,” Councilwoman Meredith Harker told them. “I could see you care about the people you are defending and prosecuting.”
Councilman Ernest Burgess added, “I appreciate the dignity and care you show defendants who are usually doing all they can to get their lives back on track.”
While the DUI case filings made a dramatic jump from fiscal year 2018 to fiscal year 2019, overall filings did not. Total case filings in fiscal year 2018 were 10,302 while fiscal year 2019 filings were 10,716, a 4% increase. In both years, well over 80% of the filings were for traffic citations.